Sending more people to prison and spending more on corrections hasn't cut crime but has helped push Connecticut to huge state budget deficits, says a new report from the Connecticut Regional Institute for the 21st Century. The report argues that turning to lower-cost and more effective alternatives to incarceration for some offenders could help restore fiscal responsibility without compromising public safety.
"This is an area long overlooked for comprehensive change," says Pete Gioia, CBIA vice president and economist and a member of the institute's steering committee. "Serious reform would not only relieve significant pressure on the state budget but would also result in better outcomes for many of Connecticut's nonviolent offenders."
The institute's report, Assessment of Connecticut's Correction, Parole, and Probation Systems, is the second in the group's Framework for Connecticut's Fiscal Future series of studies. The report identifies ways to streamline the state's prison system to achieve an optimal balance between the cost of the system, imposing appropriate justice for criminal activity, and ensuring public safety.
The State of the System
According to the institute, Connecticut's corrections system is "one of the fastest-expanding segments of the state budget," growing 280% since 1990. Other critical facts:
There are 18,555 people incarcerated in Connecticut.
The annual corrections budget is more than $700 million, almost 5% of the overall state budget.
About 70% of the average daily cost per inmate from 2008 to 2009 went to the pay and benefits of corrections employees.
Obviously, prison costs are driven by the number of people who are incarcerated, and for 30 years, America's prison population has been increasing. In addition, public policy decisions: such as imposing mandatory sentencing and expanding what defines a crime: have become major factors in the rise of prison populations nationwide.
With most of Connecticut's budget for corrections tied to staffing and long-term union contracts, prospects are slim for reducing that spending commitment. "The only effective way to control this cost," says the institute, "is to reduce the prison population."
Connecticut's prison population has, in fact, been declining slightly for a variety of reasons, including the release of more offenders into community supervision programs. Our state and others are finding that for many offenders, treatment, community corrections programs, and rehabilitation work better and more cost-effectively than prison. Probation, for example, costs much less than imprisonment, with an average daily per-client cost of $10.24.
The success of alternative programs should give Connecticut policymakers hope for spending less on corrections without fear of the crime rate rising.
"Clearly, a policy that appropriately reduces the prison population through judicious use of parole, probation, and community-based transitional services will save money," says the institute.
The group cautions, however, that alternative programs must be "carefully designed" to fit the nature of the prisoner's crime and provide appropriate treatment. There is no simple formula for how each program could reduce costs.
In Connecticut, two major components of state government: the State Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Judicial Branch: are responsible for the corrections, probation, and parole systems. The DOC handles prisons, and the Judicial branch oversees courts and probation.
Sounding a familiar theme, the institute said that better coordination between state agencies would help the different parts of the corrections system work more effectively.
"Issues such as [a lack of] cross-agency leadership, coordination, and accountability, as well as inadequate information technology...are pervasive," the report finds. Although Connecticut has taken steps to improve coordination between the two agencies, "much more can still be done."
Ways to Improve
The recommendations cited in the institute's report include the following:
Unify the oversight of the entire corrections system and install a comprehensive data system.
Standardize risk-assessment tools for better, more consistent decision-making.
Engage Connecticut businesses in helping offenders reenter the community.
Renegotiate state personnel union contracts after benchmarking other states' approaches.
Establish a faith-based pilot program for incarcerated men (modeled after a successful program for female inmates at the York facility) to achieve lower recidivism rates.
Continue to build partnerships with community-based service providers to "provide critical support to offenders in the early hours after their release."